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Why Ireland should apologise for not taking in more Jewish refugees during the second World War

Then powerful justice official Peter Berry received an appeal to give refuge to Jews who wanted to flee Nazi Germany

One of the most disturbing articles I’ve read was a recent report by Ronan McGreevy in The Irish Times on the refusal by the powerful civil servant Peter Berry, during the Nazi era, to lift a finger to save relatives of his Jewish friend Robert Briscoe from the extermination camps. Berry pretended to Briscoe, a Fianna Fáil TD, that he was trying to help even as he ensured nothing would be done.

As I write this, McGreevy has reported that St Conleth’s College in Ballsbridge employed a former SS officer as a teacher for nearly 30 years. He displayed brutal behaviour towards the students.

It is important to reflect on these things. We have had too much shaming deployed as a weapon in Ireland, but it is healthy to acknowledge shameful deeds, at least to ourselves, and pledge to do better.

Also, I think it is important to remember those whom Europe allowed to go to the camps without lifting a finger, except for certain brave people who risked their lives. This kind of remembering makes us more compassionate and compassion makes for a better world.


I’m thinking, for instance, of an Italian Jewish girl, Klara Weisz, who looks out from the Auschwitz Memorial Twitter account full of confidence. She was born in Milan and photographed at about five or six years old in her little dress and white shoes and socks.

At 10 years of age she was undressed, locked into a gas chamber and poisoned to death with her mother and brother. Her father, Arpad Weisz, a former Inter Milan football star and coach, died in the camp later.

Even if you dislike or despise Twitter (now called X), I would urge you to look at the Auschwitz Memorial account (@auschwitzmuseum). It is shocking because it shows the dead, not usually as people in striped pyjamas, but in photographs from their earlier lives. They’re so like us today — many of them could walk down the street and we would notice little different. These images cultivate empathy which is essentially an appreciation of the feelings of others.

Humanity needs more of it.

Most Irish people didn’t know the details of the gas chambers and would have been appalled had they known. But I have long believed that people at high levels in many countries, with access to intelligence services, knew what was happening and ignored it.

Robert Briscoe had taken part in the Irish War of Independence and then became a Fianna Fáil TD. He pleaded with the powerful justice official Peter Berry to give refuge to Jews who wanted to get out of Nazi Germany, including his own aunt, her husband and their children.

In an extraordinary act of duplicity, Berry, who played cards in the Briscoe family home, pretended to be trying to help Jewish refugees but did nothing.

At least two of the people for whom Briscoe had pleaded died in Auschwitz.

Not only did Berry not help — a civil servant who was favourable to doing something for the Jews was excluded from correspondence. (For more see the TG4 documentary Díomá).

We took in only 100 Jewish refugees during the second World War. We have a debt to pay to refugees.

Even after the war, when the horrors of the Holocaust were known, Berry opposed the admission of Jewish refugees, writing a memo full of anti-semitic nonsense when the government nonetheless decided to admit a handful of Jewish families for a maximum of two years.

I think the Irish people were better than Berry. My father told me that German prisoners at the Curragh camp during the war were popular with women at local dances (German and Allied internees were allowed out daily). But after the newsreels from the concentration camps appeared on cinema screens in Naas, Newbridge and Kildare, nobody would dance with the Germans anymore.

I don’t know if, by the time you read this, an apology has been made by St Conleth’s. But I think the time is apt for an apology from the Irish Government also.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Acceptance — create change and move forward.; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (